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Empathy at the Workplace: Economic Security for All Caregivers

At the Center for American Progress last week, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand shared about the need to change American laws in order to reflect the ethos of the 'modern economy'.

By Rukmini Banerjee

Rukmini Banerjee is currently in her second year of the M.A. in Conflict Resolution program at Georgetown University. As a student in India and the United States, Rukmini has worked for a number of organizations including Save the Children, US Institute of Peace, and The Turkish Red Crescent Society (Ankara). She is presently working as an intern with Ashoka's Empathy Initiative. Her main areas of interest include women and children's rights, education, and refugee rehabilitation.

October 4, 2013

At present the United States economy is being empowered by women more than ever before--with almost half the workforce in all sectors comprising female employees. Women not only earn about half the advanced degrees obtained in the country today but also serve as the sole breadwinner in 40% of families with children under the age of 18. Last Friday at a panel discussion organized by the Center for American Progress Action Fund, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand spoke of the ‘Fair Shot Campaign’ and the importance of changing America’s laws to reflect the ethos of the modern economy.

Sen. Gillibrand opened her speech with an anecdote about her most recent camping trip with her family--where watching her son and his friend trying to row a canoe, she realized the importance of ‘support from both sides’ and how this can be related to a family or any household situation. With the middle class falling further and further behind and the ‘American Dream’ gradually slipping through their fingers, it is becoming increasingly important for both men and women, or both primary and secondary caregivers, to be able to financially support their families. In order to achieve this, maximum cooperation is required from employers through the implementation of sufficient family medical leave and other incentives that will encourage employees to retain their jobs in spite of unavoidable familial commitments.

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During the discussion that ensued, Susan Molinari, Vice President of Public Policy at Google, revealed that ‘metrics’ could prove how the workforce at Google is kept intact by showing the employees--both male and female--that the organization they work for is concerned about their well-being. When they increased their paid maternity leave to five months, almost double the usual rate of women employees returned to work after leave. Ai-Jen Poo, Ashoka Fellow and Director of the National Domestic Workers’ Alliance, spoke of the impediments and challenges faced by domestic workers in the US, a lot of whom are compelled to work more than full-time hours and are paid less than minimum wages. Such low-income workers often lose their jobs if their family members are sick, yet more than half of caregivers are single mothers who cannot risk losing their jobs.

One of the first questions coming from the audience was about the acceptability of ‘working from home’ or ‘working remotely.’ While the extent to which working remotely is acceptable depends greatly on the type of business or job, Deborah Gillis, COO of Catalyst, felt that this sort of flexibility is "key to the benefits that our staff sees in the organization," since more and more employees can avoid long commutes and still be effective in their jobs. Ai-Jen talked about the ‘sandwich generation’ comprising those who have to take care of children as well as elderly parents and can therefore benefit greatly from this option. On the other hand, Susan Molinari pointed out how ‘working from home’ can never be an option for domestic workers, so there will always be a significant number of people who cannot afford to work remotely. Sen. Gillibrand agreed that this was an important point, as we cannot seek to help only a part of the economy: "we have to think about the economy as a whole."

The discussants wrapped up the session with some final thoughts on how all their policies are actually meant to be gender-neutral. Even though the focus of the discussion was economic security for women, one cannot deny that in many households, men are the primary caregivers and should therefore receive the same benefits as their female counterparts. The issue is ultimately not simply about women – it is about talent, business, and driving the economy forward.

They all seemed to agree: that a little empathy for employees can bring about a huge difference in their levels of efficiency and overall job-satisfaction.